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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Is The Repatriation of Colonial Artefacts A Moral Duty?

Over the past few decades, there has been an increasing awareness of and support for the repatriation of colonial artefacts to their nations of origin. In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous People declared that indigenous peoples have a right to their intellectual property and that states have a responsibility to return items that have been taken from them. During his 2017 election campaign, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned colonialism as a ‘crime against humanity’. In 2017, the Sarr-Savoy report estimated that 90% of colonial sub-Saharan African ‘cultural heritage’ is currently held in foreign galleries, primarily as a product of colonialism.

The question of repatriation is, essentially, a moral one. It asks whether the West has a moral duty to go against their own economic interests and move artefacts of colonialism from their own museums and to return them to their countries of origin. Therefore, it is justified to use moral reasoning to evaluate the question of repatriation. This essay argues that repatriation is justified on two moral principles – the principle of property rights and the principle of reparation following harm. When considering the question of repatriation, it is preferable to use a principle-based justification over a utilitarian justification for two reasons. Firstly, it would be very difficult to quantitatively measure the utility of repatriation. Western museums may in some cases allow more people to see the artefacts or provide a ‘Universal Museum’ in which people gain more from seeing a variety of cultures simultaneously, whilst indigenous museums may have more impact and cultural significance for those viewing it. It is nearly impossible to practically determine which location is more beneficial in a utilitarian framework, whereas this is much more possible in a principle-based framework. Moreover, the principles of property rights and reparations provide a justification that stands irrespective of the principles of utility, and themselves provide an obligation to return colonial artefacts in the case of disputed utility. Therefore, this essay uses principles rather than utility to come to its conclusion.

If an item is unjustly acquired, the individual who acquired it does not have the right to own it. The process through which the item was transferred was illegitimate, and therefore the original owner still has a right to own it. The taker of the item has a responsibility to return the item which they obtained to its original owner. This essay defines unjust acquisition as the acquisition of an artefact by force, under coerced agreements or via intermediaries whose own acquisition method meets either of the prior two criteria. Acquiring an artefact via any of these methods means that its original owner is unable to consent to the transfer, depriving it of its validity. This definition of property rights is overtly or tacitly endorsed by the political systems of all Western democracies which generally comprise ‘The West’ and both overtly and subliminally through their systems of government and legislation. For them to disregard a principle of property rights would be hypocritical, especially since the right to property is enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been broadly signed by Western Nations. Therefore, they must be held liable to the principle of property rights when considering repatriation.

In cases of any acquisition, if the artefacts had not been taken, they would have likely remained domestically in the hands of the ethnic group from whom a colonial power took it. They would remain the property of these people unless they willingly chose to give or trade them away. The peoples of the artefacts’ country of origin are therefore the natural inheritors of the artefacts, in the case of unjust acquisition. They are the people who would continue to retain the artefact were the acquisition to have never occurred. Therefore, based on the principle of property rights following unjust acquisition, Western nations have a moral obligation to return artefacts to the successors of those from whom the artefacts were unjustly taken in cases that fulfil the criteria of unjust acquisition. To not return them would violate a principle which Western nations themselves proclaim as justified and essential to the coherent functioning of the modern social order.

The return of colonial artefacts in cases of unjust acquirement also fulfils a second principle – the principle of providing reparations for a previous injustice, which is broadly considered to be an element of justice. The principle of reparation is applicable when an actor committed an act that caused harm to a certain person or group of people, and where the action itself is considered to be unjust. This principle is morally just because it ensures that the actor who committed the unjust harm mitigates the adverse effects they inflicted upon their victim through a form of reparation or compensation.

Colonial unjust acquisition of artefacts fulfils the criterion of unjust harm to the ethnic groups whom it affected. The main use of artefacts is cultural. Artefacts represent the cultural identity of the group of people who made them. Those within the group often look to artefacts to highlight an aspect of themselves and to promote solidarity with their culture. The Benin Bronzes, for instance, provide an aesthetically and culturally rich account of the history of the former kingdom of Benin, the cultural predecessor to modern Nigeria. The immense skill and intricacies of the statues highlight the skill of their predecessors and provide an individual sense of pride. Artefacts are culturally rich vessels that help the individuals within a country by inspiring and motivating them. The colonial acquisition of culture limits the access indigenous peoples have to them, depriving them of broad swathes of this cultural heritage. Therefore, the unjust acquisition of artefacts led to the harm of deprivation of culture. In instances where this deprivation of culture stems from unjust acquisition, the act of acquiring the object is itself unjust. Thus, there is a reparative need for the West, as the actors who caused the unjust harm of deprivation of culture, to provide reparations to the nations from whom they unjustly took artefacts.

It is insufficient to fulfil the debt of reparation through simple monetary means. The cultural gain bestowed by cultural artefacts is likely incommensurable with such reparation. Artefacts are important due to their power to inspire culturally and define a nation’s identity. This power cannot be compensated through means other than culture itself. Money and material goods do not inspire and motivate in the way a work of art can. The cultural meaning which it can impart onto an ethnic group is far too significant, and practically governments who would consider accepting financial reparations instead would likely be accused of ‘selling out’ by their citizens. The cultural debt can only be properly paid through cultural means. Moreover, it is the natural and general practice that when an item is taken unjustly, part of the reparation is the return of the item itself. If somebody steals my car, for instance, he has a duty to return it as reparation. This is a general practice in the majority of legal systems and is beneficial because items very often have a unique value for their owners. The return of cultural artefacts is thus the most obvious and perhaps the only way to repay the obligation created by the unjust seizure of artefacts, due to their cultural value. In cases of unjust acquisition, Western nations have a duty to return artefacts of colonialism to their countries of origin following the principle of reparation following harm.

It is worth noting, however, that in cases of just acquisition, there is not the same moral obligation to return artefacts. If the acquisition of an item is truly uncoerced, the principle-based reasoning for returning colonial artefacts no longer stands. Whilst the successors of the sale may regret the decision and the artefacts may maximise utility in their countries of origin, utility alone does create a moral obligation to have the artefact returned to them. Whilst this essay neither has the scope nor length needed to entirely justify private property, it is the same principle of property rights dictating that unjustly acquired items must be returned which also dictates the legitimacy of the West holding on to their colonial items if they were acquired justly. Similarly, there is no longer the reparative need to return artefacts if the action leading to the harm was not unjust, as is the case with acquisition via uncoerced means. Thus, in cases where the transfer of colonial artefacts was just and consensual, the West does not have a moral duty to return artefacts.

Therefore, it is only necessary to return colonial artefacts in cases in which they were taken in a coerced or unjust manner. This would still likely represent a large proportion of colonial artefacts, due to the power imbalance between colony and overlord leading to a large proportion of the transfers being coerced. Practically deciding what was taken unjustly will generally be a difficult process. The provenance of an artefact is often unclear or disputed. Moreover, several cultures often claim ownership to an artefact. However, the difficulty of determining the justness of acquisition and precise origin of an artefact is an obstacle that museums and the West have a moral duty to try to overcome. They have a moral duty in the coming months and years to determine which artefacts have been justly acquired and which have not. In cases where they have not, they must be returned. To fail to return them would be contrary to fundamental property rights and would fail to compensate for the overwhelming deprivation of culture colonialism inflicted upon former Western colonies.


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